Time to let go – engagement through humour in the education sector.

By Posted in - Content & Content Strategy & Strategy and Planning & Student Marketing & Workshops on April 11th, 2013 0 Comments

My team and I were working in-house with a university a few weeks doing some creative content planning. Our session was going really well. Everyone around the table was engaged, everyone creating great content ideas and everyone – dare I say it – having a good time.

Then came the knock on the door. Could we stop laughing please? The senior managers of the organisation were having a meeting next door and felt that we were enjoying ourselves too much and not getting anything done.

It’s a one-off incident, but resonant of a concern that I repeatedly hear in my work in the education sector. Somehow, we’re not supposed to have fun.

Now, let’s be clear. The very reason that I work in education is because I think it’s a serious business and just about one of the most important things in society. But just because something is important, does not mean that it shouldn’t and cannot be fun. And just because something is fun, doesn’t mean that serious objectives cannot be achieved by embracing this.

The meeting was far less productive after the laughter ceased.

And so, this brings me regularly to think about the content that we create for social media marketing and communications. Some of the most successful campaigns have humour at their core, and are only successful because of that strong emotional reaction that humour is able to provoke.

So, how can we embrace ‘fun’ and comedy in social media content for marketing and communications in the education sector without fundamentally undermining the seriousness of our core business? This is something that we’ll address at length in our social and digital media content strategy workshop being held in London next week if you’d like to join us, but let’s reflect on it just a little here too.

I’m convinced that three things – broadly speaking – hold us back in letting go with our marketing and communications:

  • Organisational culture
  • (Mis)perceptions of how audiences expect us to behave (I refer to this as their “cultural relationship” with us)
  • Approvals process for agreeing messaging and marketing and communications approaches.

Culture and cultural relationships is a big topic and I won’t reflect on them here (we’ll save that for the workshop and my strategy work – believe me, I spend a LOT of time working on this and thinking about culture and strategic communications). Instead let’s focus on approval processes.

While at SXSWi in Texas last month I attended a session on “Comedy Tech: how funny shapes our future.” During the session Peter McGraw, Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of Colorado Boulder, introduced us the theory that he believes can explain how humour works – the benign violation theory.

It’s pretty simple really so I’ll have a stab at explaining it. In essence, in order for us to find something funny, we must at one and the same time be able to have a degree of empathy and understanding of what we are hearing or watching, and for a violation to also take place of that. Laughter can be seen as our way of showing others that the violation that takes place through the joke (or otherwise) is actually okay, that actually the violation is really benign and therefore something that we can laugh at.

But, for humour to occur it must have both elements. McGraw’s simple venn diagram explains this well. Humour occurs at the intersection of the benign and the violation:



Humour fails when content is either too benign (“meh”), or when it is too much of a violation (“that is way out of line”).

If we think about how different people respond to different comedians as an example, then we start to see how each individual’s “line” of what they perceive to be benign and what they perceive to be a violation can vary enormously. Test it out: turn to your colleague next to you and start up a conversation about what they think of the following:

  • Frankie Boyle
  • Chris Rock
  • Russell Brand
  • Ricky Gervais
  • Lee Evans
  • Billy Connolly
  • Victoria Wood
  • Tim Vine

(Show your boss this blog post as evidence that this conversation is genuinely in aid of your professional development if they pass by – remember, laughter is okay as it helps us be more engaged!).

There’s a pretty good chance that you didn’t agree on what you thought of all of them, right? And that conversation was probably with just one or two people. By virtue of the fact that they work near you, they probably do the same or similar job as you and may therefore also be fairly similar to you. Now imagine mapping that conversation into a committee system and approval process in which you need to achieve collective agreement. You see where I’m going with this.

Our tendency therefore whenever we try to apply humour in education marketing and communications is to fall back towards the benign in order to keep everyone happy. In a ‘serious’ and safe culture, it’s easier to veer towards the benign than it is to veer towards the violation.

And yet the few examples in our sector that do veer towards the violation side of things are typically the ones that we see achieving far greater reach. Tomska’s work with the University of Lincoln on the Zombie video and the swans clearing campaign is a perfect example of this. As is Why the fuck should I choose Oberlin?

“That’s why I chose Yale” only works for Yale because it is Yale. The violation is of an organisation that we would otherwise think of as being extremely serious and ‘proper’. The fact that it’s a very ‘safe’ type of humour would push it right down to the benign in some organisations, but the reputation of Yale means they just about get a laugh out of it. The same is true of Eton Style (Eton’s Gangnam Style Parody). This is where cultural relationships with different types of organisations start to play a role, but I’ll hold those thoughts for another time and occasion (did I mention our workshop?)

So many will fail quite simply because too many people were involved in the approval process. We don’t lack the ability to develop creative and compelling content ideas in education. But we do lack the approval systems needed to enable us to make them happen.

As a consultancy working in this field, this is great news for us. Instead of developing ideas internally, people come to us to work up those ideas for them. That way it can be blamed on the external consultancy if the ideas are considered too much of a violation, and no harm is done. A client recently gushed to us about how much they loved the work that we have been doing for them and how they could see it was really working, and then quickly followed up with “but I couldn’t do that myself because I’d be worried about what our managers would think.” They were happy to let us go ahead and do it, but then we were doing it without going through an approval system (bar our own internal sanity checks, of course). So, our challenge is to help you to start developing those creative content ideas and to help get them approved and rolled out.

Come along to our workshop on 19 April where we’ll discuss this issue and much more when thinking about developing creative online content strategies.

I’ll finish on my favourite example of fun and humour getting results. Who can resist a few minutes of their time to hear (again) about Mister Splashy Pants?

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